TUESDAY, JUNE 12, 2007, 7:25 AM
On Tuesdays Lieutenant Commander Mark Thurman treated patients in the orthopedic trauma clinic at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. Things would be different today. John Bristow’s phone call changed his schedule. It came yesterday afternoon while he was fixing a broken wrist. The circulating nurse answered the phone and held it to Thurman’s head as he manipulated a titanium plate into position over the fractured radius.
“Congratulations, Doc, you’ve been selected,” Bristow said.
“For what?” Thurman asked while adjusting the alignment.
“The Kill House. The CO wants you ready at 1100 hours tomorrow.”
Thurman fumbled but caught the plate before it bounced from the operating room table. “You’re serious?”
“No joke. It’s what you requested.”
“Tomorrow’s your lucky day. Chief Donaldson has some patients for you to see first. Be here around 0900.” Bristow paused, then added: “Good luck.”
“I’ll be there.” Composure regained, he suctioned the wound and repositioned the plate. Thurman finished repairing the wrist but didn’t sleep well that night.
He awoke Tuesday with the premonition he would be shot and realized there was a good chance he’d die in the Kill House. These thoughts didn’t make for a pleasant drive to work. In the orthopedic department morning report he paid little attention as residents presented surgical cases admitted during the night. He wasn’t interested in diagnoses and treatment plans. Instead, Thurman sat at the back of the room wondering what lay ahead and what part of his psyche had driven him to pursue combat? Why do this? Why not be content with just practicing medicine?
It was a compulsion. He’d been waging an internal struggle with his version of Mr. Hyde for a long time. The epinephrine rush these life-threatening situations produced grabbed him like an addiction. He was an adrenaline junkie. But it was also about altruism and putting himself at risk to help others. Thurman raked his fingers through his hair and pondered this dichotomy as he drove his Toyota Tundra out of the Naval Medical Center’s main gate. The line of cars waiting to enter the base was a block long as patients arrived for their morning appointments. Downtown Portsmouth passed by in a blur as he drove in silence.
He was a physician and a warrior. If this seemed like a catch-22, it was self-inflicted. He’d taken an oath, primum non nocere, but he also had learned to fight. In both endeavors he’d sought the best teachers and apprenticed under grandmasters. Today would be a critical test.
For the last year he’d spent his free time immersed in combat training. The navy encouraged him and had given him TAD (temporary additional duty) away from his medical responsibilities to pursue it. The experience had been arduous. He’d known exhaustion, injury, and countless hardships. His trainers wanted him to have a taste of what they’d been through. What it was really like. They wanted to see if he’d quit—DOR, or “drop on request.” He hadn’t. Failure was not an option; it never entered his mind. The Kill House invitation meant he’d made it. It was acceptance by the tribe—a sign of respect, a rite of passage. Other than actual combat, this was the ultimate challenge. He drove on and gave silent thanks that it would only be a virtual death.
The route took him through the Olde Towne district of Portsmouth by the boats in the marina. He stopped at a traffic light and glanced at them rocking in their slips. The final hues of coral and peach were gone from the eastern horizon and morning sunlight glinted off the peaceful waters of the Elizabeth River. The stoplight flashed green. He drove down Effingham Street and merged onto Interstate 264 heading toward the Norfolk Downtown Tunnel. He repeated his mantra—I will survive—over and over. The odds were against him.
Rush hour traffic through the tunnel was heavy. “Trust your training,” he whispered as the pickup crept ahead in the long dim tube. A few moments later he slipped on his Wayfarers and drove into the sun, heading east towards Virginia Beach. The steering wheel felt greasy from palm sweat as he changed lanes and accelerated. Thirty-five minutes later he passed through the main gate at the Dam Neck Training and Support Center and continued toward the ocean.
There weren’t a lot of cars on the road in this part of the base. The area was off-limits to most personnel. Coils of concertina wire crowned the ten-foot high chain-linked fence surrounding the exclusive compound. Gravel crunched under the tires as he drove into the vacant parking lot. He put the truck in park and watched a pair of screaming F/A-18 Hornets fly overhead from nearby Oceana Naval Air Station. Many decades ago this place had been the Dam Neck Mills Life Saving Station. The United States Navy had taken it over after the outbreak of World War II and it was currently home to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, otherwise known as DEVGRU.
Noisy seagulls flew overhead and the smell of saltwater was strong. Thurman walked toward the security checkpoint and glanced to his right at the black, windowless four-story building known as the Kill House. No one talked about what went on in there. He’d find out later this morning.
As Thurman reached the checkpoint a guard, sporting a semi-automatic pistol and wrap-around Oakley sunglasses, turned to face him.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Dr. Thurman, reporting for orthopedic clinic.”
“I’ll need to see your ID.”
Thurman placed his gear bag on the step, retrieved his wallet, and presented his military ID card. The guard studied it, then looked down at the metal clipboard in his left hand. “Wait inside while I call your escort.”
A few minutes later a suntanned, wiry-built man with shaggy brown hair covering half of his ears opened the guard shack door. He was of medium height, wore a T-shirt, workout shorts, and running shoes. His beard was scruffy and he had a pair of sunglasses pushed up on his head. Not your average navy sailor.
“Good to see you, sir,” the man said.
“Nice to see you, Bristow. Thanks for the invite.”
The corners of Bristow’s mouth curled upward as he nodded. “Daggers must think you’re ready.”
“I didn’t realize anyone was keeping track,” Thurman said.
“We all keep track. Commander, are you ready?”
“I think so.”
“Is your mind ready?”
Thurman looked at Bristow for a second and nodded. “I’m ready.”
“You’re the first.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve never seen anyone without a trident pinned to their chest go into the Kill House. You’re damned sure the first doctor.”
“There’s a first time for everything. What are my odds?”
Bristow stepped back and held open the door. “For survival? The line is twenty to one. I’m taking the insurgents.”
“That’s all? Twenty to one?”
“Come on, you have to see some sick call patients before the fun starts.”
Thurman grabbed his bag and they walked toward a large, nondescript two-level brick building about fifty yards away. “Twelve guys need your attention; a couple of them are post-ops.”
Thurman worried about his SEAL Team patients more than any others. This had nothing to do with their injuries or operative procedures. They were uniformly high-strung, type A personalities who expected instant healing. It was a battle to keep them from screwing up his surgical work. Tight reins were required or, in their enthusiasm to return to duty, they’d damage what he’d repaired. Thurman understood. Their bond of devotion was forged in blood. The guilt of being on the sidelines was more crippling than the battle wound. They wanted to be back as soon as possible, pulling their share of the load and risking their necks beside their brothers.
“Any problems?” Thurman asked.
“I don’t think so, better ask the Chief for details,” Bristow said.
“Which team is deployed?”
“Green. Blue is in stand-down. Red Team deploys next month.”
“You guys are busy,” Thurman said.
“No shortage of missions these days.”
They reached the building and went through a side entrance. They continued down several hallways and stopped in front of a gray metal door with the letters MEDICAL stenciled on it in red.
“Go on in,” Bristow said. “I’ll be back when you’re done.”
Chief Donaldson, the corpsman in charge of the department, greeted Thurman as he entered. Clinic progressed smoothly and two hours later they were almost finished.
The last two patients were members of Bristow’s Blue Team. They’d been wounded during their last mission in Afghanistan in a battle involving their unit, a Russian Special Ops patrol and Al Qaeda insurgents. Thurman had asked why Russians were operating in the region but hadn’t received an answer. There wasn’t a need for him to know. There were rumors of Russian and American blue-on-blue (or, more accurately, blue-on-red) friendly fire casualties. While Russians weren’t generally considered brothers-in-arms, in this instance they were working with U.S. forces when things went sideways. Fratricide was horrible in any combat unit, but in the SEAL community it was the ultimate sin. The men didn’t talk about it, and Thurman didn’t ask questions. He was familiar with the fog of war. Three years ago, after completing orthopedic residency, he’d successfully requested to be sent into combat in Afghanistan. His father and brothers and generations of Thurmans before him had done it. This resulted in eleven months of combat medical experience at the Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Air Field and with the Forward Surgical Teams in southern Afghanistan. So, he knew what his patients went through. These Blue Team guys were lucky; they had all their limbs and would fully recover—at least, physically.
There was a knock on the exam room door and Bristow, now dressed in uniform, poked his head inside. “Are you ready, sir?”
Thurman looked at Chief Donaldson. “We finished?”
“Until next week, Doc.”
He turned to Bristow. “Let’s do it.” He followed him to the front of the building and up the stairs to the second floor. Bristow stopped at the commanding officer’s door and knocked.
The SEAL stood aside for Thurman to enter. “That’ll be all, Bristow,” said a voice from across the room. Several men were seated at a long conference table, facing him. They stood as Thurman approached.
Captain Zachariah Jaggears, the commanding officer in the middle of the group, extended his hand. “Lieutenant Commander Thurman,” he said, “I’m glad to finally meet you.”
“Good morning, sir.” Thurman shook the captain’s hand and came to attention. He stared at the gleaming gold trident pinned to the left side of the captain’s uniform above four rows of ribbons. At the top, closest to the midline of his chest, was the blue-and-white Navy Cross. Jaggears was legendary. “Thank you for the invitation. It’s an honor, sir.”
“At ease, Doc. Sit down. It’s a pleasure to have a physician take a serious interest in what we really do. I’m not surprised, given your family background. I never had the privilege of meeting your father. I regret that. You have some large shoes to fill.”
“Yes, sir.” They took their seats.
Jaggears glanced at a file on the table and then looked at Thurman. “This is your personnel record. It says you’ve been training with us for a solid year. Most doctors that come out here see a few patients and occasionally hang out with the guys, but they don’t get their hands dirty. You’re different. You’ve displayed serious leadership capabilities and stuck with the program. Congratulations. No medical officer has ever done that. It also says you’re good with a gun and excel at hand-to-hand.”
“Thank you, sir,” Thurman said.
“What do you think of our martial arts training?”
“Impressive, sir. Krav Maga and Systema techniques took some adjustments. Not what I’m used to.”
“The IDF and Russians are some tough, cold-hearted bastards,” Jaggears said.
“What style were you used to?” asked a man sitting at the end of the table.
“Mostly Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu.”
“Excellent,” Jaggears said. “Experiencing what we do gives you a better understanding of your patients.”
“Yes, sir,” Thurman said.
“You’ve demonstrated the commitment, now it’s time to see if you’ve learned anything. Today will be a new challenge. The Kill House is a unique urban combat training facility. No other place like it in the world. The walls are movable, so training scenarios are always different. The virtual reality system is futuristic. It’s the ultimate assessment of your battle skills at close quarters. Senior Chief tells me he thinks you’re ready. What do you think?”
“I’m ready, sir.”
“Good,” Jaggears said. “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so. As you probably realize, Uncle Sam is generous with our funding. The critical nature of our business means we enjoy the privilege of being able to requisition anything that will enhance mission readiness. Do you understand the mission?”
“Affirmative. That’s our business, and business is good these days. The men and women who work here—the ones you take care of—are incredible. They’re the finest men and women I’ve ever had the honor of being associated with. We’re the best because we’re committed and we have the best leaders, the best facilities, the best equipment, and the best training available on the planet. You’ve experienced a little of that.”
“Thank you, sir.” Thurman sat rigid, sensing his pulse pounding in his ears—if Jaggears told him to get up and run through a wall he’d make a hole. He took a deep breath and held it for a second before slowly exhaling.
Jaggears’s stare was piercing. “Today you will experience the most realistic CQB fighting situations possible. The VR imaging system will create events depicting men, women, and children. The holograms will act out various engagements in each room you enter. You’ll take real-time actions after determining if the threat is a hostage or terrorist. You’ll fire your weapon as the tactical situation dictates. Do you understand?”
“This is a live ammunition event. It has to be as real as possible. The sound, smell, and tactile feel of your weapon are all important parts of the experience. The walls are covered with two-inch thick rubber that absorbs the rounds.”
“Will I be scored?” Thurman asked.
“Negative. This isn’t medical school. There aren’t any grades. Your first priority is to survive and not shoot yourself or your teammates. Your second priority is to kill the bad guys and minimize the civilian collateral damage. But you will be evaluated. Feedback is required for improvement. You’ll be wearing sensors so the computer system can track your movements. It can detect if you’ve been hit and whether or not you hit your target. Are you ready?”
“Senior Chief, show me how well you’ve trained the doctor,” Jaggears said.
“Aye, sir.” Senior Chief rose and gestured for Thurman to follow him out of the building. Once they were outside Thurman noticed a white government pickup truck parked in front.
“Holy hell, is he always like that?” Thurman asked.
The Senior Chief laughed. “Daggers Jaggears—we don’t call him that for nothing. Not to his face, though. Don’t disappoint him or screw up. Throw your bag in the truck bed.”
The black monolithic structure was even more imposing as they drove closer.
“Like the CO said, it’s the best CQB urban combat training facility in the world. You’re damned lucky to even see inside.”
“I know,” Thurman said.
“You’ll be wearing special headgear, a lightweight helmet fitted with a hologlass system with a 140-degree visual field. It’s a high definition holographic optical unit fitted with three microprocessors that process terabytes of information almost instantaneously. I hope you brought some extra underwear.”
“Senior, what am I getting into?” Thurman asked.
“You’ll see. It’s unreal.”
Thurman unclicked his seatbelt as the truck came to a halt in a parking space next to the windowless edifice. He exited the cab and retrieved his equipment from the bed. He couldn’t help but stare up at the structure as they approached the entrance. Senior Chief opened a featureless door and they entered into darkness.
A light came on and Thurman felt sweat trickle down his armpits as he passed through the opening and down a long hallway. Butterflies took flight for the tenth time this morning and the hair on his forearms stood erect. After a couple of turns they entered a room filled with electronics. Flat screen displays covered the walls. Several men sat at what looked like video control desks.
“Welcome to KC,” said one of the men.
“What?” Thurman asked.
“Kill Central. Officially it’s CQB Control. From here we monitor what’s going on in the building. These screens display what’s happening in each room and what you’re seeing through the hologlass. Your helmet is fitted with a microphone so we can communicate. Try this one.”
“It feels fine,” Thurman said.
“I’m turning it on.”
“Go for it.” An image of Captain Jaggears appeared in front of Thurman. “Whoa.” There was also a menu of different weapons.
“You need to tell the unit what weapons you’re using,” one of the technicians said. “You’ll be using a CQBR M4 and a SIG Sauer P226 pistol. Pick those off the screen.” Thurman reached out and touched the indicated weapons. “Take off your helmet, and let’s get you kitted up.” They walked to a locker room where Senior Chief opened an empty locker door. “This one belonged to Maxwell,” he said. “Use it with respect.”
Thurman remembered Maxwell had been killed in action about a year ago.
“Are you sure? I can throw my stuff on the deck.”
“It’s okay, you’ve earned it.”
“Thanks.” He stood straight and nodded, then hung up his khaki uniform and changed into combat utilities before returning to the control room.
“Put this armor on,” said Senior Chief, handing Thurman a vest. “Get your helmet and follow me.” He led the way through several hallways until they entered a room that resembled a movie set. The scene was an Iraqi city. “This is where you’ll start. It’s a street in Ramadi. We use lessons from battles there to teach urban fighting. When you get the message, enter this door and begin making your way through the house. Your mission is to rescue your teammate who is being held on the second floor by insurgents. Any questions?”
“Where are my weapons?”
“Wait here.” He went out of the room and returned carrying the guns. Thurman removed his web belt and rethreaded it through the holster, attaching it near his right hip. Senior Chief handed him several M4 thirty-round magazines. “Put these in your vest pockets and check your weapons.” Thurman inserted a full magazine into the SIG, racked the slide, and put it in the holster. He then slipped his left arm and head into the M4 sling, inserted a magazine, slapped it into place, and pulled the charging handle.
“Weapons hot,” Thurman said.
“Make your rounds count.” He pointed to a cylindrical device attached under the M4 barrel. “That ain’t a muzzle light, it determines your accuracy. We can tell if you’re on target.”
Thurman drew his pistol and examined the barrel.
“Same thing,” Senior said.
He holstered the P226 and thought of Orson Scott Card’s novel and wondered if this was how Ender felt the first time he entered the Battleroom.
“I’ll be watching. Don’t embarrass me. I’ve been trying to train your ass. If you screw up, I’m going to catch a lot of shit and it’s going to cost me. I’ve got money riding on this.”
Thurman gave him a thumbs-up but didn’t know what to say. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth like Velcro. He felt his heart thumping against his Kevlar vest and took several deep breaths. A voice came over the helmet speakers.
“Settle down, Doc. The helmet monitors your heart rate through an ear sensor. You’re at hummingbird rate.”
Senior Chief gripped his arm. “Try to relax and think. Your brother is depending on you. Turn on the hologlass.”
Thurman reached up and pressed the switch. “Wow.” He was back in time to his first deployment. “This is unreal.”
“Let’s go, Commander,” Senior said. “Game on. Open the door.”
“Roger.” He turned the handle and entered.
The muzzle of the M4 moved in sync with his eyes. It was a typical Iraqi home. A woman and several children were seated on the floor across the room. They looked at Thurman and started screaming, then ran through a door at the back of the room. He followed.
Footsteps came from his left. He turned to face a man charging with a knife. The man grabbed for the muzzle of the rifle. Thurman pulled, then let go and drew his pistol, rocking backwards with his upper body. His left arm blocked the knife thrust. He fired two rounds into the attacker’s chest. The man slid to the ground with bloodstained robes.
“Come on, move,” Thurman whispered. He holstered the pistol, re-gripped the rifle that hung from its sling, and moved forward. A voice came from the next room. Two men burst through the doorway twenty feet away, screaming in Farsi. One of them fired a handgun. Thurman leveled the M4 and fired five or six rounds into center mass. They fell to the floor. One reached for something in his pocket. He fired a three-shot burst and the man lay still. Incredible.
“Keep advancing,” said a voice in the helmet, “your teammate is depending on you.” The smell of food cooking intensified as he moved forward. He scanned the room and maneuvered deeper into the labyrinth. He felt a breeze and saw curtains move on his right. The next doorway had long strings of beads that clinked like chimes as he moved them with the barrel of his rifle. He stepped into the room. Shots came from the top of a stairway to his left.
Wall fragments blew out in front of him. He crouched and returned fire until the magazine was empty. A body tumbled down the steps. Thurman dropped the empty magazine and slammed in a full one and released the slide. He flipped the rifle safety to full auto while stepping over the body and moving up the stairs. A head peaked around the corner. Thurman stopped and knelt. A pistol appeared and several blind shots went over his head. He pulled the trigger of the M4 blasting away the corner of the wall where the pistol had been. The sounds were deafening and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air. Spent brass shell casings clattered on the steps. He continued up the stairs. Two men jumped out, pistols blazing. Thurman returned fire the instant they entered his visual field. They both fell and a grenade one of them had been holding bounced down the stairs. He dove forward, swiping it off the stairway like a handball player diving for a shot. The grenade exploded before hitting the ground. That was too damned close.
A voice in his earpiece said: “Your teammate’s in mortal danger, Commander. You’ve got to get to him. Slow your breathing. You’re hyperventilating.”
Thurman cleared the hallway at the top of the stairs, stepping over the bodies. There was no avoiding the large pool of flowing blood. He stepped in the middle of it and almost slipped. How could that be? This is virtual reality. Voices came from a doorway to his right. Thurman entered and saw an American soldier tied to a chair. An insurgent in black garb held a pistol to the soldier’s head and started screaming in Farsi. Thurman had no idea what he was saying. Then he heard a shriek and looked to his left. An old woman was coming at him with something in her hand. She was within ten feet when he tried to fire. Nothing. Weapon jam. “Shit.” He smacked the bottom of the magazine with his palm and pulled the charging handle. Nothing. He dropped the M4 and grabbed his pistol. As the woman attacked, he tried to push her away. Her hand seemed to strike his shoulder as he rolled away, firing the SIG. A knife slid from her grip when she hit the floor. He sprang into a fighting stance. The insurgent stood behind the prisoner, using him as a human shield. He aimed his pistol at Thurman’s head and began shooting. Thurman returned fire until the magazine was empty. The enemy went down, bleeding from his head. The hostage slumped forward and didn’t move.
“Stand down, Commander Thurman. You’re dead. Game over. Turn off the hologlass. Unload your weapons, lock the slides open, and return to the front of the house. Senior Chief will meet you there.” When he turned off the hologlass the rooms became empty. Black rubber-coated walls surrounded him. The virtual world vanished. The Matrix.
“That was unbelievable,” Thurman said. His clothes were drenched in sweat. His legs quivered as he descended the stairs and made his way back.
“What do you think?” asked the Senior Chief.
Thurman’s cheeks puffed out as he exhaled. “I’ve never experienced anything like that. Not even in Afghanistan. Massive adrenaline. How long was I in there? An hour?”
“Try fifteen minutes. That’s how it is in battle; time slows down. Debrief in KC, come on.” Thurman followed him back to the control center. The commanding officer stood in the middle of the room with hands on hips.
“My God, Doc, we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to make you into a team operator,” said Jaggears. “You shot the whole place to hell.”
“That bad, sir?” he asked, looking at the floor.
The Captain started laughing. “Bad? You were killed not once, not twice, but three times, and managed to shoot everyone in the house, including your teammate.” Others joined him in the laughter. “At least the woman and children got out the back.”
Thurman slumped. “My fault. I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again. There was no time to think—react or be killed—it was crazy.”
“Welcome to war, son. That was bad, but I’ve seen worse . . . a lot worse. You didn’t freeze, and you kept moving forward. When your weapon jammed you did the right thing to try to get it functioning. You managed to stay in the fight. The rock-and-fire maneuver with the first assailant was textbook. The weapon jam and the old woman distracted you. The enemy shot you while you wrestled granny. If you’d aimed a little higher and shot him first, you might have saved your brother. Unfortunately, you didn’t.”
“At least he didn’t piss his pants,” said Senior Chief.
“Good job,” said Jaggears as he put his hand on Thurman’s shoulder. “Bring your gear next week. We’ll do it again. You’ll do it until we make you an honorary DEVGRU operator.”
A DECADE LATER
TUESDAY, AUGUST 19, 2017, 3:30 PM
Hector Ramirez parked the big John Deere in its spot in the barn and climbed down from the cab. “I want to give her some grease. We didn’t get a chance this morning.”
“Let’s knock off when you’re done,” John Bristow said.
“You sure? It’s only three thirty.”
Bristow removed his ball cap and wiped the sweat from his face. “We’re ahead of schedule, and I want to talk to Emily.”
“About that land guy?”
“He keeps calling.”
Hector pulled a rag from his back pocket and began cleaning the fittings. “Don’t they listen?” He shook his head. “Why did they pass that law?”
“I don’t know, ask the governor. There’s nothing we can do about it now. Fracking is legal and everyone wants to make a buck, even if it destroys the land.” Bristow picked up the gun from the workbench and returned to the giant green beast. Heat radiated from the engine like hot breath as he pumped the grease nipples full. After completing the maintenance, they closed the barn doors and climbed into the pickup. “I’ll pick you up at seven tomorrow; we’ll start on the southern tract.”
“We should be done by Friday,” said Hector.
“That’s the plan. Planting has to be finished by the end of the first week in September.” Bristow glanced in the rearview mirror at the billowing dust cloud that followed as they sped down the dirt road.
“That shouldn’t be a problem.” Hector looked off to the west and said, “I’m glad you’re standing your ground.”
“Dad would’ve done the same.”
“He would’ve told them to go straight to hell.” They rode in silence for a few minutes. “If they try to drill, Uya will do his work.”
“The earth spirit will stop them.”
“You don’t believe that legend, do you?”
“Maybe you should. Many men have died because of what’s in this ground.”
Bristow chuckled. “Those explosions were almost a hundred years ago.”
“The spirit of this land is fierce. Don’t let them frack this ground.” His eyes remained fixed on the fields as they approached his house. “Drop me at the mailbox,” Hector said as the truck slowed.
“See you in the morning.”
Hector waved after closing the door. Bristow watched him retrieve the contents of the mailbox in the rearview mirror as he drove away. He thought about Valentine’s contract and the problems with his neighbors.
As he pulled into the driveway his mood brightened when he saw his wife, Emily, and their daughter, Sophie, in the front yard. “How are my girls?” he called as he exited the truck. He squatted down and almost fell backwards as Sophie jumped into his arms.
“We’re great, Daddy. I had fun today.”
“Did you learn something new?”
“We always learn new stuff.”
“You’re so smart.” He put her down and she ran to her bicycle.
“How was your day?” he asked Emily as he watched his daughter peddling around the yard, teetering on training wheels.
“Same old stuff—it’s the accounting department. What about you?”
“Valentine keeps calling. He’s upped the offer.”
“Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know,” Emily said.
“You’d better sit down.” He took her hand and they sat on the front steps.
“I said I don’t want to know.”
“A $250,000 signing bonus, plus $7,500 an acre per year.”
“That’s crazy, John.”
“They increased the royalties to twenty-two percent.”
She ran her hands through her hair and let out a long sigh. “Are you serious?”
“That’s what the man said. He has a new contract to sign. Still want to hold out?”
“I’ll never change my mind. Some things aren’t for sale.” Emily stood up. “Sophie,” she called. “Come on, Little Miss.” Sophie ran to her mother.
“Blair worries me. He’s pissed off,” Bristow said as he stepped off the porch to retrieve the bike.
“He’s a loudmouthed bully—all talk,” Emily replied. “He doesn’t worry me.”
“It’s a joint lease; the company doesn’t want individual parcels. It wants all three pieces of property and no one gets paid unless we all sign.”
“Too bad,” said Emily. “Rex Blair will have to accept that no one’s fracking this land.” She gathered Sophie into her arms and hugged her. “Isn’t that right, honey?” Sophie nodded as she wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck. “We’re doing the right thing.”
They fixed dinner and ate as a summer thunderstorm lit up the sky and pounded the roof. After her bath Sophie, her blonde ringlets bouncing, marched to her dad on the sofa as she held her new favorite book. “Daddy, read to me about Max and the wild things.”
“Are you a wild thing?” he asked.
“I’ll eat you up!” she laughed and climbed onto his lap. As she snuggled next to him he began to read. Within a few minutes her eyelids started to droop and she was asleep before Max sailed home in his private boat. After tucking her in, Bristow returned to the family room and flopped back on the sofa next to Emily. He watched as she flipped through a magazine, not really looking at the pages.
“Still thinking about the offer?” she asked, replacing it on the coffee table.
“Not really,” Bristow said. “I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Good. When do you leave on your next trip?”
“Do you have to go?”
“We’ve been over this. I have to. The tobacco market is at an all-time low in the States. There’s a strong demand in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I’m committed as a member of the North Carolina delegation; I can’t back out now. We’ve made a lot of progress.”
“This is the third meeting this year.”
“I know, I’m sorry. It’s supposed to be the last one.”
“I should hope so.”